Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India and Sri Lanka, threatened by loss of key plant species. Cultivation of endangered medicinal herbs offers hope.
Of 359 wild medicinal herbal plant species surveyed in India recently, 355 were found to be critically endangered under IUCN Red List Standards. In Sri Lanka, ayurveda is also regaining in popularity as an alternative medicine treatment, resulting in many medicinal herbs also becoming endangered. Cultivation of many popular medicinal herbal plants will be necessary to prevent their total extinction in the wild.
Ayurveda Tradition of Gathering Medicinal Herb Plants From the Wild
Ayurveda is based on the use of native medicinal plants. But increasing human populations in both India and Sri Lanka have reduced the amount of undeveloped land where ayurvedic herbs continue to grow wild. The resurgence of the popularity of ayurvedic herbal medicine has also resulted in more plants being harvested on a regular basis. In some cases the wild medicinal plants are believed to have stronger healing properties. But often it is simply easier to harvest wild medicinal herb plants.
Important Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Plants Face Extinction in the Wild
Exports of ayurvedic products from India are estimated to have tripled between 2001 and 2003, yet most of the common medicinal herbs for ayurveda are still harvested from the wild. The endangered plant species are often taken whole, whether or not all parts are needed, reducing the chance for the area being harvested to recover. In both India and Sri Lanka, overharvesting for ayurveda threatens not only the individual plant species, but also the ability to provide quality ayurvedic herbal medicine to patients.
The demand for traditional medicinal plants has resulted in indiscriminate collecting and destructive harvesting by those who see a way to make money from both local and international interests. As with ginseng poaching in US national parks, these collectors are not concerned with long term management of these important medicinal plants.
Cultivating Ayurvedic Medicinal Herbal Plants
The Indian government has been working to develop sustainable harvest protocols for endangered herbal medicinal plants. The cultivation of Ayurvedic herbs is seen as a way to protect these medicinal plants from extinction and to control growing conditions. Controlled growing conditions may also result in more consistent quality for some of the natural herb remedies used in ayurveda.
In Sri Lanka, a survey of Mihinthale Sanctuary found a very high level of ayurvedic herbal plant diversity, leading to a recommendation that conservation of the sanctuary be made a priority. The report also recommended the development of local community farming projects to provide both economic benefits and a steady source of traditional medical plants for ayurveda.
Preventing the extinction of herbal medicinal plants for ayurveda and other traditional healing modalities helps maintain local biodiversity. The income produced from the cultivation of ayurvedic medicinal plants in local communities may also help encourage other conservation oriented work in the area.